ISS Expedition 47 trio returns to Earth
Blazing through the atmosphere, three members of the International Space Station’s (ISS) Expedition 47 crew returned to Earth on June 18 in their Soyuz spacecraft. The capsule descending through mid-afternoon skies above the Steppe of Kazakhstan some 300 miles (480 kilometers) east of where they launched in December.
Returning to Earth are NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, and British astronaut Tim Peake. Launching Dec. 15, 2015, aboard Soyuz TMA-19M, the crew spent 186 days at the orbiting outpost. They left behind on the space station NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, and Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka.
The temperature at the time of landing was around 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius). The skies were mostly sunny with a light breeze.
“The smells of Earth are so strong,” Peake said after he was extracted from the capsule. “It’s wonderful to be back to fresh air.”
This was Peake’s first flight. He is the first British European Space Agency astronaut to fly—the second to fly with a British flag patch.
Preparations for landing started at 8:15 a.m. CDT (12:15 GMT) on June 17 when Kopra handed over command of the space station to Williams.
“I know, Jeff, that the station is in great hands,” Kopra said as he officially handed command of the outpost over to Williams. “I’m proud to be able to pass off this command to you today.”
After taking a nap for a few hours, the departing trio entered their Soyuz after a final farewell. Official hatch closure was at 9:34 p.m. CDT June 17 (01:34 GMT June 18).
For the next couple of hours, the crew on both sides worked to ensure there were no leaks between the space station and departing Soyuz. Afterward, Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake donned their Sokol launch and re-entry suits.
Undocking from the Rassvet module occurred at 12:52 a.m. CDT (04:52 GMT), officially ending Expedition 47 and beginning Expedition 48 for the trio still aboard the ISS. The Soyuz separated from the orbital outpost while flying over eastern Mongolia.
At about 66 feet (20 meters) away from the space station, the first separation burn was conducted by the departing spacecraft. The Soyuz fired its thrusters again for a second burn just 90 seconds later.
About two-and-a-half hours after undocking at 3:22 a.m. CDT (07:22 GMT), while 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from the ISS, the crew commanded the Soyuz’s SKD engine to fire for four minutes and 37 seconds, slowing the spacecraft down by about 420 feet (128 meters) per second, dropping the lower part of their orbit to intercept with the atmosphere.
At about 3:49 a.m. CDT (07:49 GMT), just under thirty minutes after the de-orbit burn, the three modules of the Soyuz—the Orbital Module, Descent Module, and the Service Module—separated. Only the Descent Module with the crew is intended to return to Earth safely.
Just before 4 a.m. CDT (08:00 GMT), the Soyuz entered the atmosphere going 4.73 miles (7.62 kilometers) per second. Just under seven minutes later, the spacecraft had slowed to 1.41 miles (2.28 kilometers) per second while still 20.7 miles (33.3 kilometers) above the surface. The crew experienced their maximum gravity load of about 4.5 times the force of Earth’s gravity at about this point.
The Soyuz blazed through the atmosphere, creating a trail of super-heated plasma around the capsule for nearly 10 minutes, slowing the spacecraft down enough for the first set of parachutes to deploy.
“The G-Loads are decreasing,” Malenchenko said to mission control in Moscow as the trio were descending. “We’re glad to hear you guys, everything is fine on board.”
Parachute deployment started with the release of pilot chutes to pull the drogue chute out. The spacecraft and crew were just over 6 miles (10 kilometers) in altitude at this point, still going 695 feet (212 meters) per second.
The drogue slowed the capsule to only 262 feet (80 meters) per second before the main parachute deployed. Its surface area of 10,764 square feet (1,000 square meters) slowed the vehicle to about 21 feet (6.5 meters) per second.
This slow descent lasted for about 10 minutes while the spacecraft and crew began to prepare for touchdown.
First, the heat shield was jettisoned, which revealed the Soft Landing engines. Next, the cabin pressure was equalized with the outside. Finally, the crew seats, called Kazbek, were moved slightly upward relative to the horizon in order to absorb the shock of landing.
As the spacecraft descended, the recovery team began to locate and track the capsule. Once the main parachute deployed, helicopters began a wide circle around the landing area.
About one second before touchdown, the Soft Landing engines ignited in a momentary burst to cushion the final three feet (about one meter) of the crew’s journey. The official landing time was 4:15 a.m. CST (08:15 a.m. GMT).
The spacecraft landed on its side. To prevent the parachute from dragging the capsule around, the line connecting the two was automatically cut, as planned.
After touchdown, search and rescue teams—nearby helicopters and all-terrain vehicles—rushed to the capsule to begin the careful extraction of the crew.
The first to be removed from the Soyuz was Malenchenko sitting in the center seat of the three-person capsule. Next was Peake. Finally, Kopra was pulled out. All three were taken to nearby lawn-chair-like couches for initial health checks and some water.
After the initial checks, the crew were then taken into a nearby medical tent for additional medical tests and to acclimate to Earth’s gravity a bit better. They will also get out of their suits and into more comfortable clothes. After that was complete, the trio were loaded into helicopters to be flown to the city of Karaganda, Kazakhstan. There they will split up and head to their respective space agency astronaut and cosmonaut centers.
This completed Malenchenko’s sixth flight into space. His first was to the Mir space station aboard Soyuz TM-19 between July and November 1994. Since then, he has accumulated a total of 827 days in space—second only to Gennady Padalka.
Kopra completed his second mission and has accumulated 244 days in space. For his first flight, he was part of Expedition 20 of the ISS in the summer of 2009. He launched to the space station aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour during the STS-127 mission and returned to Earth on Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-128 mission, spending a little less than 60 days at the orbiting outpost.
The next trio to launch to the ISS will be Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin, Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi, and NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins. They are scheduled to launch aboard Soyuz MS-01 at 4:36 a.m. Moscow time (01:36 GMT) July 7. This was delayed from June 24.
Video courtesy of NASA TV
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.